OLYMPIA, Wash. — If history is any judge, the U.S. government will be paying for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for the next century as service members and their families grapple with the sacrifices of combat.
An Associated Press analysis of federal payment records found that the government is still making monthly payments to relatives of Civil War veterans — 148 years after the conflict ended.
At the 10-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, more than $40 billion a year is going to compensate veterans and survivors from the Spanish-American War from 1898, World War I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the two Iraq campaigns and the Afghanistan conflict. And those costs are rising rapidly.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray said such expenses should remind the nation about war's long-lasting financial toll.
"When we decide to go to war, we have to consciously be also thinking about the cost," said Murray, D-Wash., adding that her WWII veteran father's disability benefits helped feed their family.
Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator and veteran who co-chaired President Barack Obama's deficit committee in 2010, said government leaders working to limit the national debt should make sure that survivors of veterans need the money they are receiving.
"Without question, I would affluence-test all of those people," Simpson said.
With greater numbers of troops surviving combat injuries because of improvements in battlefield medicine and technology, the costs of disability payments are set to rise much higher.
The AP identified the disability and survivor benefits during an analysis of millions of federal payment records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
To gauge the postwar costs of each conflict, the AP looked at four compensation programs that identify recipients by war: disabled veterans; survivors of those who died on active duty or from a service-related disability; low-income wartime vets over age 65 or disabled; and low-income survivors of wartime veterans or their disabled children.
THE IRAQ WARS AND AFGHANISTAN
So far, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the first Persian Gulf conflict in the early 1990s are costing about $12 billion a year to compensate those who have left military service or family members of those who have died.
Those post-service compensation costs have totaled more than $50 billion since 2003, not including expenses of medical care and other benefits provided to veterans, and are poised to grow for many years to come.
The new veterans are filing for disabilities at historic rates, with about 45 percent of those from Iraq and Afghanistan seeking compensation for injuries. Many are seeking compensation for a variety of ailments at once.
Experts see a variety of factors driving that surge, including a bad economy that's led more jobless veterans to seek the financial benefits they've earned, troops who survive wounds of war, and more awareness about head trauma and mental health.
It's been 40 years since the U.S. ended its involvement in the Vietnam War, and yet payments for the conflict are still rising.
Now above $22 billion annually, Vietnam compensation costs are roughly twice the size of the FBI's annual budget. And while many disabled Vietnam vets have been compensated for post-traumatic stress disorder, hearing loss or general wounds, other ailments are positioning the war to have large costs even after veterans die.
Based on an uncertain link to the defoliant Agent Orange that was used in Vietnam, federal officials approved diabetes a decade ago as an ailment that qualifies for cash compensation — and it is now the most compensated ailment for Vietnam vets.
The VA also recently included heart disease among the Vietnam medical problems that qualify, and the agency is seeing thousands of new claims for that condition. Simpson said he has a lot of concerns about the government agreeing to automatically compensate for those diseases.